Sparked by Words

Dumpster Diving


Decades ago I took a university writing class with a respected and much lauded professor who rattled off a list of rules all good writers must absorb as the writer’s bible, and then expounded about why none of us undergrads would meet his requirements even if we adhered to his rules. My penned notes on his first lecture filled many lined pages with not a single doodle enhancing the margins, my go-to I’m bored activity. The papers were creased with the sweat of my hands as I’d written, the ink smudged by the nervous energy of trying to listen attentively, to commit every significant comment to the notebook. For future reference, for guidance in my efforts to become a writer. His final words, actually his very first words, were that he’d like to see far fewer faces at the next lecture because we were not the students he wanted to teach. Without reading a single sentence from any of us, he declared we were dull, uninspired, unworthy to write.

At the end of his first class, I walked out with my head reeling, a sense of nausea brought on by the knowledge that the previous four years of college were a total waste of time. As he’d accused, though he’d addressed the entire room of forty or so upper level students, I was unqualified to ever attempt to write a story, so ignorant that I couldn’t function within the narrow corridor of competence as he’d described. I couldn’t live by his rules because I was already a total failure. He spoke to all of us but I took it personally. He spoke to me.

The dizzying buzz in my brain assured me I was as incompetent as he’d expected. His initial evaluation after calling my name from the attendance record confirmed his suspicion that I would never live up to anyone’s expectations of becoming a successful writer – or a successful anything. Perhaps dumpster diving might suit me. At least then I had the potential of dredging up something useful from the bottom of the bin, something practical for the life of a loser.  That’s what he expected of all of us, of me. Dumpster divers, nothing more.

It was that class, so late in my long years of attending college, and rejection letters (I’d been warned I should expect them for the few stories I’d submitted for publication consideration, rejection being the norm for new writers) that convinced me I didn’t have the right stuff. That I didn’t have the write stuff to be a writer. With only this final semester of college before I could graduate, my credits hovering on the maybe-not-enough-units line, and a bank account that couldn’t support one more semester to make up a failed attempt, I dropped his class. I couldn’t risk a failing grade. I couldn’t risk trying to pass a class the professor had already warned I wouldn’t. After frantic rearrangement of department allocations for a few of my classes, I did manage to graduate “on time,” but my wobbly confidence fell over the cliff. Post college I did little to pursue writing as a career but eventually constructed a measure of success in another field.

How many of us who wanted to become someone – a ballerina, a rocket scientist, an inventor, an ambassador on behalf of our country – found ourselves waylaid by the doubt of stepping outside the hallowed halls of university and encountering the real world of looming bills, demanding employers, and sewers to be cleaned? Detoured  by a threatening professor? I wasn’t the first, the only, the last. It took me decades to understand that the famous professor’s clever manipulation of an apprehensive young woman produced exactly what he wanted me to become: someone whose papers he didn’t have to read or grade. I was what he’d nurtured: a drop out and a failure. I was also what I’d nurtured: a fool cowering at the bottom of a dumpster.

But what the famous professor didn’t count on was that I would scrabble from the dumpster and gather myself as a person of merit. He didn’t consider I’d have something more than his rigid rules to measure success. I’m passionate about what I do, what I write. Passion carried me through a whole crap load of insecurity. I survived a latent start to surface from the dregs of the bin to make myself a person out of the aura of the insecure student. I’d never been a brilliant prodigy but I’ve always been resilient. And I’d always been passionate about who I was, what I might become.

Fifteen years ago I resurrected my desire to write. I wrote with frenzy, stimulated by current needs to change who I was and dormant longing to do what I felt I should have done with my life. Late at night the computer glowed and hummed, helping me craft and hoard my novels. When I wasn’t near the boxy beast, I thought writing and kept penned notes about what to revise, what to write next. The excitement of my childhood, of my early college years when I envisioned becoming the next great Dickens or Virginia Woolf invigorated me. Like most of us I’m encumbered by practical needs and responsibilities, all the everyday necessities that get in the way of a creative life, but nothing can stop me writing now.

I finally learned what a wiser student would have learned in that ominous writing class: an indifferent teacher cannot make me a bad writer. Only I can do that. Likewise, only I can make myself a good writer. Rules may assist or impede, but if I write with passion, ain’t nothing gonna get in my way, baby. Put that in your cup and stir it up, drink it down, and get outta my way. I am a writer. That took a very long breath and a voice from deep within my psyche, but  there, I’ve said it: I am a writer.

And here’s the coup de grace: I can no longer remember the name of that famous college professor.

Dumpster photo courtesy of Edward,

Comments on: "Dumpster Diving" (24)

  1. Ugh, that’s awful. No matter what the professor’s intentions, to speak such discouraging words doesn’t help anyone. Some people might thrive on his words in an I’ll-show-him manner, but I suspect they’re few and far between. Words can have a lasting effect, much longer than sticks and stones (which is why I’ve never liked that saying). Glad you found your way back to writing. And that you forgot his name!


  2. Recovering from failed confidence I think is quite difficult. I commend you for your success. Three books! And a room full of fellow writers who know exactly how good you are. Go girl!


    • Thank you, Jacqui. He really did a lot of damage, but I was also such a quivery little mouse, it didn’t take much to shove me down a hole. Your encouragement means a lot to me, coming from you, whose writing I so admire, and coming from someone who’s read my work.


  3. The role of a professor is to teach and inspire. Amazing how many professors are allowed to discourage. Thankfully you didn’t listen. Keep writing. A person with creativity, who follows the rules of writing, and knows how to express themselves well, need one other thing. The strength and courage to persist. Be thick skinned. You can achieve your goals.


    • I don’t know how this prof got his “big” reputation and I hadn’t done enough research. It was my last semester, his class sounded perfect in the catalogue, I was looking forward to getting married in a few months, and I’d wanted to end my undergraduate years with a fabulous schedule of classes that would set me on my writerly way. Boy oh boy – literally I took a dive. I finally toughened up, but it took me a long time.
      Thank you for your encouragement, Andrew. I will achieve my goals. So will you.
      I didn’t expect you to comment on this one or even read it as I know you’re busy with personal items at the moment, so really, thank you very much.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good for you, Sharon. So much of what we do is a matter of taste. I dislike Gothic. Jane Eyre has done nothing for me since I hit adolescence and discovered Tolkien. But that certainly doesn’t mean nobody should write Gothic. It just means I’m not in your target audience.

    I believe that past a certain level of competence, all we’re trying to do is find our readers. May you find many. 🙂


    • From your lips to God’s ear, Cathleen. One day I’ll get there. I thank you for your support.
      I was certainly not in the prof’s target audience. I’ve chosen not to tell the whole story, but there is more – perhaps for another post some day.


  5. One thing can be said about no-name is that he WAS inspiring – he inspired you to drop the class and perhaps decades later to prove him wrong. Some people in their arrogance and/or ignorance forget (or perhaps never know) how raw and impressionable each of us is at various times in our lives.

    Your story reminds me of third grade. My teacher was a frustrated singer who had us sing every day. She would instruct us to stand at our desk while singing and walked around the room listening to each student to make sure we were in tune. If you were out of tune she would tap you on the head and you had to sit down. I and one other child got tapped every day. Until I was well into adulthood I never sang out loud but mouthed the words so people would think I was singing.

    I still can’t carry a tune but as long as no one taps me I sing out loud now.


    • The problem was that this happened my last semester in college and I had to have the class for the units to graduate. Because classes had already started and many upper level classes were filled, I ended up taking a play writing class, taught by someone who was indifferent to teaching altogether, or maybe just not very motivated to teach young adults. What I’d hoped to be a stellar final semester turned out to be a huge disappointment.

      Especially in elementary grade, classes in music, art, and theater should be focused on the child’s personal journey. There’s plenty of opportunity to teach the fundamentals of the subject, but they should know to support the child’s self esteem as well as to foster joy in learning to be expressive and creative. In later years, a kid who wants to be a pro in a field can learn all the mastery skills she’ll need.

      Third grade? Good grief, sing your heart out, kid. Out of tune – that’s for old pianos. I’ll sing with you, Judy, any time, loud as breaking the sound wave. No one will know which of us is in tune or eating tuna.


  6. I think your professor was dire. A good teacher encourages and nurtures. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the least talented and inspiring person in the room was him.


  7. I don’t know about the States but in Australia it used to be the case that University professors didn’t have teaching qualifications. This made most of them knowledgeable but impossible to listen to. Only the odd one was inspiring. Roger when doing economics had a lecturer who set an assignment early in the course. No-one could do it. When they got their results back the lecturer said that he hadn’t expected anyone to be able to do it but that at the end of the course they would be able to. Problem was half the students had dropped the course without knowing this was the case. Ridiculous way of teaching as was your Professor’s technique. It is a pity for you as it squelched temporarily your desire to write but you have recovered and perhaps gained more as a writer as a result. You have the passion and that is what is important and to date, I love your writing.


    • It’s pretty much the same in the States. University professors must know their fields, have at least a Master’s degree, and most have Phd’s in their fields. No teaching certification is required and few have any background in education. For university teachers, the only review process seems to be how students rate their professors at the end of a class, so a lousy prof has just about the same chance of staying as an excellent professor. Many have no passion for teaching, it’s just relatively easy income for them. Of course, that’s getting tougher now as well, with university budgets making it impossible to hire full time professors or tenor track professors. So newer profs are getting hired for only one or two classes at one college, and one or two classes at another, have no office space because they’re part time, and the students are rarely able to meet with profs after class for consultation. It’s a crappy system, unfortunately. The sports programs are always funded of course.

      I had several indifferent profs, I’m not even sure this one was the worst. I had to have his class or some other similar class as it was my last semester, and I needed to graduate and move on. I ended up taking a class with a prof who had serious psychological problems and ended up in a mental hospital before I got my final grade. So my diploma was delayed after all.

      Much of my delay in writing as a career is my own fault. I couldn’t deal with the rejection letters for my first story efforts. Too immature and thin skinned. I built a successful career as an art teacher, classes I loved teaching, and was very good at it. Now it’s time to take up my original goal of writing.

      Look at you, Irene, going full bore on your writing career. You’re nearly done with your program. I hope you enjoy a huge, much deserved celebration, and then I hope to read your book.

      Liked by 1 person

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